He has a degree in hotel and restaurant management and worked in that profession for 10 years. But Robert Fleer, 37, says he finally found his niche in life when he stuck his head up a chimney and felt the soot fall all around him.

The urge to sweep chimneys came about six years ago, after Fleer's hotel career fell victim to recession-era layoffs. He checked out chimney-sweeping courses but, being unemployed, found the $1,500 for tuition and the $800 for materials a bit steep, he recalls. So he went to the library and picked up a book called "Be Your Own Chimney Sweep."

After reading that trusty manual and a few other practical and historical writings on the subject, Fleer gave his friends free chimney cleanings for Christmas. When he proved he could do it, he traded in his car for a second-hand van and the basic chimney-sweep equipment, including stiff brushes on long poles, a flashlight and a hefty supply of dropcloths. And, in good chimney-sweep tradition, he bought a black top hat and tails. He is now known professionally as Cinder Fella.

On a call in Crofton, Md., the other day, Fleer pulled up to a house whose new occupants didn't know much about fireplaces -- they had never had one before -- but could tell that their chimney was dirty and the iron grate had rusted through. In addition, someone had thrown a rubber Spiderman doll on the roof: Could Cinder Fella retrieve it while he was at it?

Fleer climbed a ladder to the top of the chimney, and thrust long poles with brushes attached into the chimney down to the fireplace two stories below. Then he went back down the ladder and inside to the fireplace and set to work scrubbing and brushing from the bottom up, listening for sounds of loose bricks or other internal damage.

Fleer has abandoned his top hat and tails. It took just a couple summers' work to learn that the hat was too hot for the job. And after tripping over the tails of his coat while climbing ladders, he decided that could be shelved as well. Now Fleer keeps his top hat perched on the dashboard of his van, handy for ceremonial occasions.

This day he was dressed in black trousers and a black sweater, the better to hide the soot. Before crawling into the fireplace, he donned dark overalls and two pairs of gloves, and a cotton balaclava helmet.

He also put on a large gas mask, with straps wrapped around the white helmet and two purifying filters jutting off each cheek.

"When I get rich and famous," he said, explaining his attire, "I'd like to sit back and enjoy my money, and not spend it in a hospital with black lung."

Black lung and cancer are two of the hazards faced by ill-protected chimney sweeps: They work in a soot-laden atmosphere, rubbing against surfaces coated with the carcinogenic chemical creosote -- an oily substance used as a wood preservative.

"It's a dirty job," Fleer observed, "but somebody's got to do it."

But it's a good job, he said, noting that chimney sweeps have a romantic aura around them that most other workers don't enjoy.

Storied by Charles Dickens, celebrated in the tales of Mary Poppins, chimney sweeps have an image they like to encourage.

Chimney sweeps advertise their "Top Hat Service" and use advertising logos featuring top-hatted dancing chimney sweeps. When the National Chimney Sweep Guild held its annual convention in the District last year, about 800 chimney sweeps were in attendance, most dressed to the nines.

There's another good thing about the chimney sweep business, Fleer said: It's booming.

"Fireplaces are on the upswing," he said, admitting that he doesn't have one himself, although he's planning to buy a wood stove. "They add some charm. They make a house cozy and nice. And they're good for the resale value of a place. We get a lot of calls from people who want to have a fireplace put in after the fact."

Diane Bangs of the Chimney Sweep Guild said the fireplace and wood-burning stove boom that was part of the oil crisis has not slowed down yet. There are about 1,200 guild members, she said, roughly 200 of whom have joined in the past three months. The guild estimates there are around 5,000 chimney sweeps nationwide.

Bangs and Fleer agreed that safety is the big selling point for having a chimney swept: dirty, damaged or deteriorating chimneys are fire hazards. Cracks can allow fire to spread to the house, while built-up soot and creosote inside the chimney can ignite."Fireplaces are on the upswing. They add some charm. They make a house cozy and nice. And they're good for the resale value of a place. We get a lot of calls from people who want to have a fireplace put in after the fact." -- Robert Fleer, a k a Cinder Fella

Fleer gave his Crofton client these instructions on use and maintenence of a fireplace:

To build a fire, place five or six pieces of crumpled newspaper under the grate, and don't use colored wrapping paper, trash or other chemical-laden papers. Hold a twist of paper above the fire near the damper to warm the air and get it flowing in the right direction -- up the chimney.

Do not burn treated lumber, paneling or plywood, because they are loaded with toxic metals and chemicals such as formaldehyde, copper and arsenic.

Do not burn fold-out pizza boxes. No matter how they are folded, they are among the most frequent causes of out-of-control fires.

Don't make the fire too big. A fire half the height of the fireplace is big enough.

Chimneys, wood stoves and fireplaces should be cleaned and inspected at least once a year if used regularly. If used only occasionally, a check every other year should suffice.

Chimneys should be inspected and repaired after any chimney fire.